Can Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley Fire Everton into the Champions League?
Everton picked up an impressive win over Newcastle United on Monday night, thanks largely to the first-half efforts of Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, who between them fired three goals in the opening 37 minutes.
The final score of 3-2 was rather closer than it needed to have been, but the first-half performance made the point: Everton's attacking play, so much more fluid and creative in the early stages of this season than it has previously been, is made to get the best out of both of these talented youngsters.
While the decision-making of Chelsea to let Lukaku go on loan has already been questioned by all and sundry, Everton can simply take advantage of his abilities as they look to push on from last season's sixth-place finish, perhaps even with a tilt at the Champions League in mind.
Mourinho after seeing Lukaku play today... pic.twitter.com/7JsXbhCz4k— The Football Front (@ReviewFootball) September 30, 2013
Given their expenditure relative to the teams around and above them, such a jump in league form over a whole season would be a huge ask, but there can be little doubt that the Blues have the depth and quality in the final third to win a significant number of matches this term.
Lukaku's pace and power give him the ability to lead the attack alone, but he is far from isolated.
In particular, the emergence of Barkley as a regular starter from an attacking midfield position under Roberto Martinez means the Belgian striker is rarely called upon to hold the ball up for more than a second or two before reinforcements arrive; the all-action, energetic and committed displays have already earned Barkley international recognition, and he looks set to play a big role in Martinez's first season at Goodison Park.
With Lukaku working the channels, occupying two defenders at once and showing, even after a single league start for Everton, that he will be a much better penalty area presence than Nikica Jelavic can hope to become, he will almost certainly stay as the first-choice striker this season.
After just one-and-a-half games in Martinez's system, looking to press forward quickly and in numbers, Lukaku has three goals and one assist.
Behind him, Barkley can not only aid defensively in pressing, tackling and winning the ball back, but he can also transition very quickly in joining the buildup phase or, importantly in Martinez's approach, break beyond the forward line to lead the attack himself. His goal against Newcastle was the perfect illustration of how he benefits Lukaku and is able to link up with him.
Everton fans might not appreciate the comparison, but there is a certain amount, in style if not yet in substance, of another such Merseyside combination about the two: Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
So what of a top-four finish?
Aside from Jelavic, Arouna Kone, Gerard Deulofeu and Steven Naismith provide final-third backup for Everton. Kevin Mirallas and Leon Osman have the starting spots at present in the wider areas, with Steven Pienaar another option.
Martinez is also confident enough, and astute enough perhaps, to alter his base formation to get the most out of the available attackers when necessary, so, in the final third, Everton won't be found wanting too often.
It is at the other end of the pitch which is likely to decide the Blues' fate.
Where will Everton finish?
Everton held firm enough against Newcastle in the face of a second-half, though fairly half-hearted, comeback on Monday night to win 3-2. In truth though, the Magpies were largely abject, and Everton should have seen the game out without too much fuss, certainly not conceding anything beyond Yohan Cabaye's speculative but spectacular goal.
Martinez is very much attack-focused as a manager and wants his side to go and beat teams, but sometimes, especially once a lead has been established, they need to simply not concede, by whatever means necessary.
The team was extremely hard to break down and beat under David Moyes, and the Spanish coach must find the right balance between the increased freedom in the final third he grants his players and not losing the rigidity and compactness at the back which aids Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka's dominance.
It's a stretch to see Everton improving much above the glass ceiling of sixth place in the Premier League for Martinez's debut campaign, even with Barkley and Lukaku in fine form, but in a transition year with astute signings having been made and the powers of the Belgian to call upon, European football of some sort shouldn't be out of the question, and nor should a tilt at silverware in the domestic cups.
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